A Roanoke City Circuit Court judge recently ordered a defendant to pay nearly $160,000 to two plaintiffs for violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”) in a dispute over a wrecked car worth no more than $9,300.
In Hughes v. Robert Young Auto & Truck, Inc., No. CL16-1364, the plaintiffs, a married North Carolina couple, sued for compensatory and punitive damages for conversion, violation of the VCPA, and fraud. The case began when the plaintiffs’ son, driving his parents’ car, was chased by the Virginia State Police. After ultimately crashing the vehicle, the police directed the defendant, Robert Young’s Auto & Truck, Inc. (“RYAT”), to tow the vehicle from the scene and store it. Pursuant to Virginia’s garage-keeper’s lien statute, RYAT elected to satisfy the unpaid lien arising from the towing and storage fees by selling the car via public auction, a remedy established by public statute.
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles wrongfully advised RYAT that American Honda Finance Corporation owned the vehicle, prompting RYAT to mail that company a notice of lien and public auction. That mailing was returned as undeliverable. RYAT employees also posted auction notices and then held the auction at RYAT’s Roanoke office on March 30, 2017. When no one attended, RYAT itself purchased the vehicle for $100.
Meanwhile, the parents, who were the actual owners of the vehicle, had approached the Virginia State Police and requested permission to retrieve the vehicle. The police informed them that it could not be retrieved because it remained evidence in an ongoing criminal investigation. Consequently, the vehicle’s owners did not approach RYAT about paying any applicable fees or having the vehicle returned, and they never received notices from RYAT of the public auction.
When the owners finally did approach RYAT following the auction, RYAT informed them the vehicle had been sold to an out-of-state buyer. In a later phone call, RYAT informed the owners that the out-of-state buyer was willing to walk away from the deal and that the owners could procure the vehicle if they paid $4,794.81, which purportedly represented the towing, storage, and auction fees. The owners refused and instead filed suit in Roanoke City Circuit Court.
Following trial, the Court granted relief based on the VCPA claim. It noted that the VCPA “outline[s] ethical standards between suppliers and consumers in order to protect the public, and it is to be construed in favor of the injured party.” It also explained that the VCPA covers “suppliers” involved in transactions with consumers and defines a “supplier” as “a seller, lessor or licensor who advertises, solicits or engages in consumer transactions, or a manufacturer, distributor or licensor who advertises and sells, leases, or licenses goods or services to be resold . . . by others in consumer transactions.” Through its offer to sell the vehicle back to its owners, RYAT became a “seller” and consequently a VCPA “supplier,” the Court reasoned.
The plaintiffs established four VCPA violations, based on: (1) RYAT’s false statement that an out-of-state buyer purchased the vehicle, where RYAT itself actually made the purchase; (2) RYAT’s failure to post proper auction notices; (3) RYAT’s separate false statement that the out-of-state buyer was willing to walk away from the transaction; and (4) that the $4,794.81 represented the total cost of towing, storage, and auction fees, where the actual costs and fees were actually $2,844.81.
Accordingly, the Court awarded $27,900, plus interest. Actual damages were calculated at $9,300, which represented the approximate trade-in value of the vehicle. However, the Court multiplied that figure by three pursuant to the treble damages provision in Virginia Code § 59.1-204. It also awarded attorneys’ fees of $129,295 and costs of $2,787.75. In total, the judgment amounted to $159,982.
RYAT has filed a Notice of Appeal with the Supreme Court of Virginia. However, the parties dispute whether that notice was timely filed and await further direction from the justices.
The case illustrates how the Virginia Consumer Protection Act can be a powerful tool in the arsenal of plaintiffs’ attorneys, even when the amounts at issue are seemingly small.